"Where State Television Has Become a Prostitute" [Mikhail Shishkin & the Russian Government]
So, our author Mikhail Shishkin (whose Maidenhair is the most important book I’ve ever published) cause a bit of a stir over the weekend, when he decided against participating in the Read Russia delegation to BookExpo America this summer.
Here’s the complete text of his letter declining the invitation, as translated from the Russia by Marian Schwartz:
To the Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Communications and the International Office of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center
February 27, 2013
Thank you for your invitation to take part in the activities of the official Russian delegation at BookExpo America 2013, the international book fair in New York being held from May 30 to June 1 of this year.
I understand how important participation in this kind of book fair is for a writer and for promoting his books in America and other countries. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with American publishers and readers, since the English-language book market remains virtually closed to writers from countries like Russia. Especially since all expenses for traveling to and staying in the United States (and this is no small sum) are taken on by the official Russian side.
Nonetheless, I am declining. Not because “my schedule doesn’t permit it,” but out of ethical considerations.
I have accepted similar proposals from you many times in the past and have participated in international book fairs as part of the Russian writers delegation, but in the last year the situation has changed.
In any self-respecting country, the state, through various foundations and organizations, supports the advancement of its writers abroad, pays for translations, invites writers to participate in international book fairs, and so on. For example, in Norway this is done by Norla; in Switzerland, Pro Helvetia. Naturally, by taking part in an official delegation, the writers represents not only himself personally and his books but also his country, his state.
Russia’s political development, and the events of last year in particular, have created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture. What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed. By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.
A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.
I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, a country free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends the right of the individual, not the right to corruption, a country with a free media, free elections, and free people.
Naturally, this is my personal decision and has not been made in consultation with other writers invited to New York; each is free to act in accordance with his or her own notions of ethics and reasonability.
Of course, Russia’s deputy minister of the press, Vladimir Grigoryev (who gives the most boring of all boring speeches) came out against Shishkin, using some really Sovietesque language:
We regret this. This sort of thing happens when a Russian writer spends many years away from the motherland. There are many examples of this in history.”
Yeah, gee, I wonder why . . .
And also of course, a bunch of other Russian writers are piling on Shishkin, talking about how he’s able to criticize the government from the “safety of Switzerland,” which is where Shishkin now lives.
All of this—along with the gripes that he’s doing this to get publicity for The Letter-Book, which is coming out in the UK sometime soon, or that he’s angling for the Nobel Prize—is fucking irritating. Since when is it not OK to criticize Russia and Putin’s never-ending reign? Any half-informed hipster in Brooklyn can get politico cred and free skinny jeans for yelling “Free Pussy Riot!,” but a writer being asked to represent Russia’s tyrannical, fairly insane government can only decline if he’s living in the country where Pussy Riot is jailed and Putin Youth flush away books they don’t agree with? What the fuck sense does that even make?
I’m so glad that Masha Gessen takes a lot of this to task in her NY Times piece today:
Prominent opposition writers also condemned Shishkin. Dmitry Bykov, a liberal writer and poet, suggested that Shishkin may be angling for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Eduard Limonov, a nationalist writer and poet, was more blunt: “So he is barking from Switzerland. Yes, my dear, Russia is a shameful paternalistic medieval state. But you have no right to say anything from the safety of Switzerland.”
All of this sounds painfully familiar. As a Russian journalist who speaks out against the regime, I am often told to get out of the country if I don’t like it — and just as often that, as someone who has lived in the United States and could live there again, I have no right to talk or write about Russia. By this logic, only those who have no choice but to live in Russia are entitled to criticize its regime. These arguments are old anti-dissident demagogic standbys, hardly unique to Russia, and they barely deserve attention.
But there is something else that the debate over Shishkin’s statement has exposed. The Russian state thinks it owns its citizens, including its writers, and many of its citizens, including its writers, appear instinctively to agree. To them, the very act of asserting one’s autonomy is suspect, which is why when someone does they look for ulterior motives. Shishkin must have fallen out of touch, or into bad company, or have a bigger plan, they reason — as though just claiming the right to choose one’s allegiances was not both the most basic and the most ambitious goal of all.
What really pleases me about all this is that Shishkin will be spending the month of April in the U.S., teaching at Columbia, doing events in Austin, San Francisco, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. This tour is brought to you by Open Letter Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, the University of Buffalo, the University of Rochester, Columbia University, Holy Cross, the University of Texas, and other organizations not part of the Russian government. (More details coming soon.)
And to end on a high note, here’s a good review of the book at Slightly Bookist:
The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything. [. . .]
Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance).1 If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.
Also, World Literature Today also has a positive review that reinforces the difficultly/payoff of disentangling Maidenhair:
This array of connections forms a complex puzzle that can at times be dizzyingly intricate and even baffling. But disentangling Shishkin’s structure is one of the principal pleasures of reading Maidenhair. It is not only aesthetically satisfying but also reveals Shishkin’s unique worldview, which manages to engage Russia’s literary heritage while at the same time creating something new and altogether original.
Controversy and counter-controversy aside, you should just buy and read this book. Your life will be better for it.
1 We’re always trying to change this. And although still representing only 40% of our list, over the next 15 titles, we’re bringing out 6 books written by women and two anthologies including both male and female writers. It’s never perfect, but at least that’s a bit better . . .